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History Of Rugby

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



FOOTBALL—RUGBY FOOTBALL—History of the game—I propose to devote this part of the article to a sketch of the various phases of development which the game has undergone from the period of twenty a side up to the present time.

When I was a school-boy at Clifton College, more than twenty years ago, the game played there was identical with that at Rugby School. The number on each side was twenty, and the arrangement of the field was as follows : two full backs, one three-quarter, and two halves. It was an act of high treason to put down one's head in the scrummage, and, if any-body did so, an opponent would promptly remind him of this breach of etiquette by raising his knee sharply against it. Hacking was permissible and, as there were no umpires to appeal to in the case of a breach of the rules, such as, for example, off-side play, the innocent party used to take the law into his own hands, and with a shout of " off-side, Sir," administer the orthodox punishment for the infringement by violently kicking the shin bone of the offender.

Hacking or tripping over were quite as much resorted to as tackling, and though it may in these more civilised days appear a rather brutal and crude method of stopping a runner, it required for success the greatest skill and accuracy. W. O. Moberley, the old Rugbeian and Gloucestershire cricketer, was a perfect master of the art. And not only was it legal to hack over the carrier of the ball, but also the first on side, and I have seen as many as four of the van brought to earth by this means.

There were extraordinary formalities to be gone through in taking the ball out for a place kick at goal. The kicker used to pick up the ball and make a mark at the place where the try was gained. He then went to the goal line, and, having made a second mark opposite the former one, he and the placer proceeded parallel with the goal line to as far away from the goal posts as they liked.

The defending sides were allowed to stretch forward to their utmost, provided they kept the hindmost foot on the second mark. The kicker, facing the placer and a few feet apart from him, gently punted the ball to him, and he made another mark as far inwards and towards the goal line as he could manage to do with safety.

The defending side endeavoured to frustrate this manoeuvre, either by spoiling the catch, if they were able to reach the ball, or by seizing the leg of the placer while he was attempting to make, but before he had actually made, his mark. If they were successful in either, the kick at goal was lost. Mauls in goal were very frequent. I have seen as many as ten men in one, and there was no limit to their duration imposed by the laws.

The art of scrummaging consisted in straight-forward propulsion. One of those in the front rank was expected to get the ball between his legs, and hold it there tight, while his forwards pushed on him might and main. The packs frequently lasted two or three minutes, with forwards equipoised ; and, to show how times have altered, I have only to mention that in those days the longest scrummage was considered the best and that the spectators on the touch line often had their watches out, timing its duration.

The half-back, owing to the tight packing of the forwards, had a much easier task than hehas now, and it sometimes occurred that he was right across the field before the scrummage had become dismembered.

When a ball was kicked into touch, both sides raced to touch it down, and it was legal for opponents to charge one another in the struggle for its possession.

The first step towards a faster game was the diminution in the number of players from twenty to fifteen. For a very long time after this, however, the original arrangement of the back players was preserved. By this change the forwards, now ten in number, found themselves able to break away from the scrummage, in which they had hitherto been boxed up, and to the art of dribbling, in consequence, there was imparted an enormous impetus. Heads down and watching the ball in the scrummage followed. Hacking in club games was abolished, though Rugby School retained it for some years later; a ball going into touch was declared by the rules to belong to the side other than the one which kicked it in, and two umpires and a referee made their debut as adjuncts to the game, but the referee was only authorised to adjudicate when there was a diversity of opinion between the umpires. The maul in goal was retained even later than Vassall's day, but the preliminaries to a place kick, which I have described, were never in vogue in club football.

The next step in the same direction was a device known by the name of " Foiking," which emanated from Oxford. It consisted in a wing forward dexterously extricating the ball with his foot from the side of a scrummage. When the play had become very much faster, it was found that one man at three-quarter was no longer able to hold the field, and he was reinforced by a second, an addition which reduced the number of forwards to nine.

Next in order there was evolved a science which has had more to do with revolutionising the character of the game than any other innovation. I refer, of course, to "passing." To whom belongs the credit of the invention is a matter of much dispute, but its elaboration was unquestionably the work of the Blackheath team. It was at first entirely confined to the forwards, but by degrees spread to the halves. Who was the first half to pass out a ball is by no means clear. Many aver that J. Payne, of Lancashire, set the example, but Alan Rotherham was the first to reduce the art of feeding to a science, and remains to this day the pattern whom every half-back strives to imitate.

We come now to the addition of a third three-quarter. It happened in a somewhat peculiar manner. The South team, as originally selected, only contained two three-quarters. One of the forwards, P. Newton, however, could not play, and Harry Vassall wrote to the Committee from Oxford that they had a player there of extraordinary ability in the person of C. W. Wade, and strongly urged his inclusion. Under the circumstances the Committee resolved to play him, though not without considerable misgiving. The brilliant success of the Southern trio, W. L. Bolton, A. M. Evanson, and C. W. Wade, on Richardson's field, settled this question for good.

The next development was the passing by the centre three-quarter to his wings, and in this the pioneer was Rawson Robertshaw, who, at centre, applied the same principles which Rotherham had demonstrated at half. Coincidently with the addition of a third three-quarter the backs were reduced from two to one.

It remained for the Welshmen to add yet another three-quarter, but for a long time the other countries did not adopt the alteration, nor indeed was this to be wondered at, seeing that Wales for a number of years was badly beaten by England, Scotland, and Ireland, who adhered to the three system.

But, just at the moment when the four three-quarter game appeared likely to die out, there came to its aid two most powerful allies in new methods of scrummaging, viz., heeling and wheeling, which very soon became the fashion, and superseded the time-honoured straight-forward pushing game.

It is important here to note that up to this time the four three-quarter game had been a failure, because eight men were unable to hold their own against nine in the packs in the old style. By the introduction of heeling and wheeling this state of things was altered. The ninth man was no longer of the same value in a scrummage which was worked by the manoeuvre of wheeling, or from which the ball was heeled back almost at the very moment of its insertion, as he was when the pack had to be carried by superior power and weight.

The device of wheeling originated in Yorkshire, and one of its earliest exponents was the then famous Bradford Club. Where the practice of heeling back first came from it is difficult to say. It is, of course, a clear breach of the rules of the game, but it was countenanced so long without the interference of the authorities that it ultimately came to be regarded as an unwritten law.

The last alteration up to date is in the relative position of the two halves. They no longer stand level with each other, but, with a view of facilitating the shortness, quickness, and accuracy of the passing, one of them takes the scrummage, the so-called " donkey-half," while the other stands back midway between his confrere and the three-quarters, transforming himself; as it were, into a quasi fifth three-quarter.

As the popularity of the game increased, and consequently partisanship became more violent, it was found impossible to get impartial umpires, and in their stead two linesmen were substituted, whose sole duty consisted in holding up a flag at the place where the ball went into touch, while the referee had the sole right of deciding on appeals made to him for breaches of the rules, and signified his allowance of them by blowing a whistle. Lastly, the right of appeal was abolished, and at the present time the referee is invested with an absolute discretion.

That the reduction of the number of players from twenty to fifteen, which brought about the introduction of dribbling and passing, effected a great improvement, is on all hands admitted, but whether the addition of a fourth three-quarter has been beneficial to the play is a matter which has been very hotly debated.

Hints on the Game—The first lesson to be appreciated is that the whole tendency of the modern game has been to convert the component parts of a football team into a well regulated machine, and that it is on coordination, rather than individual excellence, that success depends.

The first step must be the choice of a definite style. You may elect to play a fast game or a slow one, a passing or a dribbling one, but, if your tactics are to be successful, your men must from the very first understand what the style is to be, and one and all must cooperate in carrying it out. Your selection will, no doubt, in a large measure be determined by the material at command, and you will have to consider whether your men are best adapted to a fast or slow game, or to a foot or hand one.



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